January 16, 2013

Flamingo and Florida Bay, Everglades National Park

At the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula is the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park, located along the shores of Florida Bay. This area is dominated by densely vegetated mangrove forests. But, there are a number of other unique areas worth checking out. It contains a marina which allows concessionaire tour boats to take visitors out to visit the hundreds of mangrove islands located offshore. You can also rent a canoe or kayak to explore them yourself. In addition, the area contains a unique ecosystem found nowhere else in the Everglades region; the coastal prairie.

Flamingo is a popular place to to visit, probably because every visitor is always interested to see what is at the end of the road. From the national park visitor center, there is a nice view out across the shallow Florida Bay. The bay is extremely shallow, but made of thick mud. When visiting during low tide, muddy shoals make an appearance above the sea and thousands of pelicans and wading birds explore the mud for crustaceans and worms.

A manatee coming up for a breathe

Look in the marina for manatees looking for freshwater entering from the nearby canal. This is a no-wake zone, so hopefully the boaters are on the lookout for them. Located just a half-mile away is the Flamingo campground. While popular, I warn you that the mosquitoes can be relentless here. While I didn't really see any at Flamingo Visitor Center (in December), they were all over the campground. And this was during the dry season. This area is said to have among the highest mosquito densities on Earth during the wet summer months, with up to 2 billion per square mile. So, I'd highly recommend you avoid the May-October time period.

A good reason not to leave your campsite unattended; black vultures

If you are lucky, you may also catch a glimpse of the endangered American crocodile. This saltwater specialist almost went extinct in the United States during the heydey of alligator harvesting for skins for purses and boots. Their population had declined into just a few dozen, but today has rebounded into the high hundreds. The American crocodile can be distinguished from alligators by their light-green olive skin and narrow snouts. Flamingo is the northernmost spot for this species, because unlike alligators they can not tolerate cool temperatures. Their primary range heads across most of the Caribbean and Central America

Crocodile sitting neat to a much larger alligator
One of the most magnificent birds you are likely to see here are Ospreys. They soar out over the shallow waters and dive in to catch fish. They almost went extinct when DDT ravaged their populations in the 50's and 60's. But, today it is common to see their nests on almost any tall object across the flat landscape; whether the be trees, powerpoles, or street lamps.

Osprey checking me out

The coastal prairie is a unique ecosystem of this area. It can be accessed by simply getting on the coastal prairie trail that leaves from the far end of the campground. The first 1/4 mile is through a dense thicket of trees that grew up along the corridor of an old road. But, once you emerge onto the coastal prairie itself, the views will be expansive. The word prairie is a bit of a misnomer. It is actually an area dominated by salt-loving pickelweed and glassworts. The ground you are walking on can be be described as a clay-like muck. If it is wet, you will soon develop a thick layer of it on your shoes.

This ecosystem has developed over centuries of hurricanes bringing storm surges inland. As the storm surge arrives, it pulls salty mud from the bay and deposits it onto the prairie. Since very few plant species can survive these salty environments, only a few hardy species remain. It is however, prime habitat for the salt marsh mosquito. While this mosquito has never been shown to carry any of the known dangerous diseases, it  also appears to be the least impressed with our mosquito repellents  So, even during the dry season, expect to be swatting away at them. In summer, have a rope-line connected to your partner so you do not get carried off by them.

It is 5.2 miles out across the prairie to a hidden little white sand beach. But, I am not sure what human could survive the heat, humidity, and bugs to be able to make it that far. Instead, if you just want a little flavor of what this area is like without getting "immersed" in it, try the Bayshore Loop.

Mangroves along the muddy shore of Florida Bay

The Bayshore Loop is a 2-mile loop that includes a portion of the Coastal Prairie Trail, turns left (south) toward the edge of the bay, follows a line of mangroves right along the muddy shoreline, and then heads back inland to the coastal prairie trail. While it was interesting to see this unique ecosystem and I am glad I did the loop, 2-mile was plenty far enough for me, especially given the number of bites I received. 
A morning glory in bloom near Bear Lake

But, I should note that when we got back to the car, we saw a father and his daughter sitting out at the trailhead in shorts and tanktops. I questioned them as to how they were surviving the onslaught. The father answered "100% DEET". So, that was my problem. I decided to experience the real Florida without the chemical layer.

January 15, 2013

Ten Thousand Islands, Everglades National Park, Florida

The Ten Thousand Islands are vast area of mangrove forests consisting of islands and sloughs along the western-side of South Florida from Florida Bay to the Gulf Coast. This is one area of the Everglades that many people overlook or do not know about. But, it is a shame because it is a fascinating area of incredible ecological significance. One thing to be aware of is that this corner has one of the highest mosquito densities on the entire planet in summer, with up to 2 billion per square mile. So, definitely come in winter when it is cooler, drier, and without the constant assault of flying hyperdermic needles.

The other nice thing about visiting this unknown corner of Everglades National Park, is that it is away from the massive crowds and urban jungle of Miami and the main road of the national park. The Ten Thousand Islands area is anchored by the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in the tiny town of Everglades City, Florida. There are only two or three hotels in the town, so plan early. From the visitor center, you can book a concessionaire boat trip to explore the mangrove swamps and see amazing wildlife.

Mangroves are unique among plants in their ability to survive not only submerged in water, but in saltwater. There are three species of mangroves in these forests. Red mangroves are the ones most tolerant of saltwater and are the early successional species. These small trees have air-roots that grip the brackish mud and hold onto it. This allows a growth of the land and the next species to take hold, black mangroves. In addition, there is a rarer third mangrove called the white mangrove that grows back in the stand above the standing water. One other tree commonly seen on these mangrove islands are the buttonwoods.

These mangrove islands are in tidal zones. While the tides are relatively small in this region, only fluctuating 2-3 feet per tide. But, because the water is so shallow in these areas, it has a significant impact on the movement of water in the sloughs and across the islands. During low tides, these islands can be high-and-dry. But, when the tide rises, there is standing water across almost all of these islands.

For wildlife, that means having to deal with being wet and salty multiple times per day and without much solid surface to hold onto. For the Colusa Indians who inhabited these mangrove swamps, it was a difficult living, despite the abundant food sources. But, they did have a strategy to given themselves some dry land to sleep on. On some of these islands, they would pile up the massive quantities of discarded oyster shells from their meals to literally make dry islands they could place their villages on.

Ancient Colusa oyster shell midden

Mangroves are incredibly important ecosystems, despite their relative paucity of terrestrial species. The dense tangle of prop-roots creates sancturaries for juvenile fish to develop without the risk of open water predators. Many of the most important large marine fish species begin their lives as tiny larva hiding out in the mangroves before they are large enough to hold their own in deeper waters. The presence of these dense thickets allows for the accumulation of sediments and thus the building of new land.

Roseate spoonbills feeding in the mud of the mangroves

One of the most important aspects of the mangrove forests for the millions of people who live in South Florida are their ability to control the power of hurricanes and tropical storms. Their presence, as a wall against storm surges, absorbs the energy of these surges and prevents them from advancing as far inland, protecting homes, lives, and property. They also reduce the amount of open water that fuels hurricanes, allowing the strength of the storm to be diminished before heading further inland.

The ospreys are back after they almost went extinct due to DDT in the '60s.

The abundance of wildlife in these shallow waters and dense thickets is astounding. The mangrove cuckoo is only found in these forested areas and no where else on Earth. The presence of ibis, wood storks, green-backed herons, blue herons, tri-colored herons, snowy egrets, and many other wading birds makes a boat trip through this area a bird-watchers paradise.

So, if you do find yourself in South Florida on a warm, dry winters day, take a trip over to Everglades City and book a tour to visit the mangroves. You will not be disappointed.

January 10, 2013

Everglades National Park: The River of Grass

The Everglades were originally called "The River of Grass" by Majory Stoneman Douglas in her book of the same name in 1947. It was called this because the water that flows out of Lake Okeechobee creates a shallow river only a foot or so deep, 60 miles wide, and 100 miles long. The Everglades are an amazing series of ecosystems focused primarily on the sawgrass prairies, where most of the water moves.

The Everglades have a tumultuous history, beginning with the plume-hunting of the late 1800's. These plume hunters would go down and shoot wading birds during the nesting season to supply feathers for hats. It became so bad, that populations that once ranged in the millions declined to the point where some species were thought to be very close to extinction. Poachers also took out so many alligators and crocodiles that their populations also approached extirpation in South Florida.

After laws were pass to protect these species, a new series of threats challenged the integrity of the Everglades. Sugarcane and agricultural fields were plowed and water diverted to irrigate these fields. Growing cities meant building canals and filling in wetlands for housing development. Before long, nearly 50% of the Everglades ecosystem was converted to farms and urban development and more than 50% of the way is diverted before reaching the portions within Everglades National Park.

Even this water creates issues because much of it is contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural runoff from sugarcane fields up stream. Extensive water retention areas have been constructed to slow the flow of the water and settle out the contaminates before they enter the national park. But, increased nutrients have begun to change aspects of the Everglades ecosystems by allowing marsh plants like cattails to replace sawgrass prairies. It also allows for the expansion of exotic species like Brazilian pepper.

Nonetheless, the Everglades still protect vast tracts of wetlands, mangroves, tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine rocklands rich in wildlife. On our visit over five days, we saw almost all of the wading birds we could have hoped to see, in addition to dozens of alligators, raptors, manatees, and even an endangered American crocodile.

Great egrets almost disappeared from South Florida at the turn of the 20th century

As we move through some of these posts, I'll highlight some of the must see places in-and-around the Everglades should you make a visit to South Florida.